Monday, March 29, 2021

mashal and moshel

The 929 Project, which covers a chapter of the Tanakh every day over a 3.5 year cycle, will be starting the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) soon. Since I write a weekly entry for 929, I thought I would take the opportunity here to look into the word mashal משל - the source of the book Mishlei.

In the Bible, the root משל has two meanings - "to rule" and "to resemble, to make like, to speak in parables." The first sense, to rule, appears 81 times as a verb, and also has noun forms, like moshel מושל - "ruler. governor" and memshala ממשלה - meaning "rule, dominion" in Biblical Hebrew, and "government" in Modern Hebrew.

The second meaning occurs 17 times as a verb, and an additional 39 as a noun, generally translated as "proverb" (giving the name to the biblical book.)

Is there a connection between the two meanings? Many older sources do make a connection. Here are a few examples:

Rabbi Hirsch, on Bereshit 4:9, writes that the basic meaning of mashal is "to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence: to command, to rule. […] Hence, also the Proverbs of Shlomo: saying which tell us what men and things are and should be. So in general. But hence mashal also means quite specially such a saying or sentence whose meaning refers not to the things actually described in it, but they are used metaphorically to refer to some general fact or teaching, to describe the character or designation of something else, i.e. a parable."

Jastrow has the original meaning as "to handle, to touch" (he brings the example of Yoma 46a - "the fire had taken hold of them.")  That sense developed into a) to attend, manage, control, and b) something tangible, substantial, plausible. From there it developed to "a truth substantiated by an illustration, wise saying, fable, allegory, example."

Steinberg suggests that the earlier, common meaning was "to straighten, to organize." This organization can both be done by a ruler, or by an orator, who arranges two concepts in a parable.

Gesenius, in his dictionary, writes: "Learned men have made many attempts to reconcile the significations of making like and ruling […] I have no doubt but from the signification of making like, is derived from that of judging, forming an opinion […] which is nearly allied to the notion of giving sentence, ordering, ruling."

However, more recent scholars have begun to doubt that the two meanings share a common origin. Klein, for example, lists them as two separate entries. For the meaning "to rule," he provides one cognate: the Phoenician משל. For the sense "to be like, resemble, to speak in parables," he offers a number of Semitic cognates:

Aramaic מְתַל (= was like, resembled), Syriac מְתַל (= he compared; he spoke in parables), Akkadian mashālu (= to be like), Arabic mathala (= was like, resembled, imitated), mithl (= a thing similar, resemblance, likeness), Ethiopian masala (= became like).

The substitution of the "sh" for "t/th" in many of these languages, but only for this meaning, could indicate a separate origin. (The Aramaic amatla אמתלא - "excuse, pretext" derives from the cognate מתל, and has entered Hebrew as אמתלה, with the same meaning.)

But as Prof. Chaim Cohen argued in this comprehensive article (English summary here, pp. 372-373), this may not be the case. He writes that "while a majority of Biblical scholars today derive the term משל from a primary verb מש"ל 'to be like' […] this view, despite many attempts to bolster it with additional evidence, has never been sufficiently compelling to win overall scholarly approval." He goes on to claim that the original meaning of the noun mashal is "saying" and the verb means "to express, relate." 

This understanding fits the book of Proverbs well. While many of the Proverbs are indeed parables - for example, "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears." (Mishlei 26:17), others are simply sayings without a metaphor: "Do not envy evil men; Do not desire to be with them" (Mishlei 24:1). 

So it could well be that the original meaning of mashal was "saying" and then later developed to the more specific type of saying - the parable.

If that's the case, perhaps we can make a connection to "ruling" after all. I did not see this mentioned in the sources I read, but there are other words in Hebrew that connect ruling to speaking - see my posts on nagid נגיד and amar אמר. It would not surprise me if mashal is an additional example.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

sutro and tzair

I grew up in San Francisco, and anyone from there will recognize the name Sutro. 

Sutro Tower is giant radio and TV antenna that can be seen from most places in the city. It sits on a hill between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro, another place with the Sutro name.

In the Sutro Historic District, on the Pacific coast, you'll find Sutro Heights Park, and it once included the Sutro Baths. And there are other places with the Sutro name in the area.

All of these places were named for Adolph Sutro (1830-1898), the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco1. He was a collector of books, and when I lived there I heard he had a manuscript with the signature of Maimonides (now housed in Sutro Library of course).  I never visited that exhibit - maybe I'll try on my next visit.

I recently learned that this pervasive word, Sutro, actually has Hebrew origins. According to this article, "the family name is probably a writing of the Aramaic zutra." And indeed, the Hebrew entry for the catalog of his books writes Sutro as זוטרא (zutra).

The Aramaic word zutra means "small." From it we get in modern Hebrew zutar - זוטר, an adjective meaning "junior" or "minor." Klein writes that the root of zutra - זטר - is related to the root זער - "to be small", which in turn is related to the root צער - also meaning "to be small, insignificant." This last root gives us the word tzair צעיר - "young" and tzoer צוער, which appears once in the Bible (Zechariah 13:7) as "shepherd boy," and today means "cadet."

Another meaning of the root צער - "sadness, suffering" only appears in post-biblical Hebrew. In the hitpael form - הצטער - it literally means "to feel pain, remorse", and is used to say "I'm sorry" - אני מצטער ani mitztaer.

According to Klein, the two roots are related. One who is treated caused to suffer, treated shamefully, is "belittled" or "made insignificant." Yaakov Etsion, in this article, agrees that the roots are related, but suggests instead that it's not others making the mitztaer feel small, but the one suffering acts as if they are contracting, reduced in size, as opposed to someone comfortable who can relax and spread out.

While Adolph Sutro's name may have meant "small," his legacy in San Francisco is anything but insignificant, and the landmarks bearing his name are the tallest in the city.

1 I have been informed that actually, the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco was Washington Bartlett. Bartlett later converted to Christianity, but was Jewish during his term as mayor.  

Monday, March 01, 2021

minaret and menorah

The word "minaret", meaning the tower of a mosque, is cognate with the Hebrew menorah מנורה. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"slender, lofty turret of a mosque," typically rising by stages and having one or more projecting balconies around it, 1680s, from French minaret, from a Turkish pronunciation of Arabic manarah, manarat "minaret," also "lamp, lighthouse," which is related to manar "candlestick," a derivative of nar "fire;" compare Hebrew ner "lamp" (see menorah).

Menorah was the term for the lampstand with seven lamps first established for the roaming Tabernacle, and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was famously lit again by the Maccabees, when the Temple was rededicated, after the Greeks had defiled it. This is commemorated in the holiday of Chanukah. During that holiday, a lamp is lit with additional candles every night, reaching eight candles on the last night, plus one extra (ninth) candle used to light the others. 

To distinguish between the menorah used in the Temple and what was lit in homes on Chanukah, traditionally the latter was called menorat chanukah מנורת חנוכה, although some people used menorah for both. Sephardic and Balkan Jews used the term chanukiya חנוכייה (with the accent on the second to last syllable - chanuKIya), and that term was introduced into modern Hebrew by Hemda Ben Yehuda (Eliezer Ben Yehuda's wife). 

Today in Israel menorah refers to the lamp in the Temple, the symbol of the State of Israel (which was modeled on the biblical menorah) and for "lamp" in general. Chanukiya (with the accent on the last symbol) is used for the lamp lit on Chanukah.

Menorah derives from the root  נור, and other words related to lamps also come from the same source. Ner נר means "candle" and nurah נורה means "bulb."

Another related word is sanver - "to blind." It was back formed from sanverim סנורים - "blindness" (as found in Bereshit 19:11). Klein provides the following etymology for sanverim:

According to some scholars, euphemistic use of Akka. shunwuru (= to give light). According to others סַנְוֵרִים is formed from the Siph‘el of נור (= to give light), used euphemistically.

 A sister root to נור is נהר, meaning "to shine." It is found in only a few biblical verses (e.g. Yeshaya 60:5 and Iyov 3:4). But its use in Aramaic is much more common. And just as sanverim means blindness and may have euphemistic origins, the term used in Hebrew for "euphemism" also comes from a phrase meaning blindness: סגי נהור sagi-nahor. It literally means someone with "(more than) enough light", a euphemism for a blind person. That classic case of euphemism has been extended to all euphemisms, which are known as לשון סגי נהור lashon sagi nahor.